Public school boards — such as Shining Rock — are completely within their right to keep the hiring process private until an employee is hired, but SRCA’s hiring process has been on the fence.
When SRCA announced on its Facebook page that the school would be holding a meet and greet for parents to meet the top candidates and ask them questions, The Smoky Mountain News sent an email to Shining Rock Board Chairwoman Anna Eason asking for the candidates’ contact information in order to interview each of them.
Eason said she was working on getting the information but then said the charter school’s consultants, Leaders Building Leaders, advised her not to release the information because it was a personnel matter.
“You are more than welcome to come to the meet the candidates,” Eason said in her email. “During that time you can ask them for their info if you like and follow up afterward.”
A SMN reporter attended the afternoon meet and greet session, which drew a few dozen parents as well. Leaders Building Leaders consultants Geoff Gorski and Katy Ridnour were overseeing the event.
When asked, the consultants refused to provide the candidates’ resumes to the reporter. Ridnour, however, supplied all attendees with a handout that said, “Welcome to Shining Rock’s Meet and Greet with School Director Candidates,” and suggested 10 “conversation starters” like, “How will you ensure that our school report card improves from a C to a B to an A?” and “How will you communicate with families and larger community?”
One candidate agreed to an interview with the SMN reporter but the second candidate seemed startled the media was present at the meeting and refused to be interviewed.
When asked for his name, that candidate remained tight-lipped and instead waved his right hand over his head, summoning Ridnour over to the table.
“It’s their choice if they’d like to be recorded or not,” she said to the reporter.
Ridnour then refused to provide the candidate’s name, or the name of any other candidate in attendance, including one who’d already been interviewed and freely given his name.
“If he doesn’t choose to share, then we can’t,” she said.
Timothy Bobay’s name, however, was listed along with those of the other three candidates on the handout Ridnour was distributing to attendees at the door.
When asked why SMN was refused biographical information from the candidates, and why candidates were presented to the public but given the option of not revealing their names despite those names already appearing on Shining Rock materials, Ridnour said, “If there’s nothing else, then you need to leave.”
As Ridnour walked back in to the meet-and-greet, she was again approached by the reporter and asked for her name, for the record.
“You don’t need my name,” she said.
A quick glance at her jacket revealed a nametag with both her name and that of her firm. Ridnour quickly attempted to cover the nametag with her right hand.
This is not the first time the new charter school has struggled with North Carolina’s Open Meeting and Open Record laws.
When Shining Rock first opened in 2015 the public charter school promising a comprehensive and rigorous college preparatory curriculum was welcomed by proponents of school choice as an alternative to Haywood County Schools, which since the 2015-16 school year has been ranked in the top 10 percent of North Carolina’s 115 school districts. Prior to that, HCS had been ranked in the top third of the state for more than a decade.
Shining Rock was not, however, welcomed by proponents of public education, who concurrent with Shining Rock’s christening foresaw Waynesville’s Central Elementary School’s closing; Central served about the same amount of students as Shining Rock does.
The school also fumbled right out of the gate with transparency. Because it’s a public entity and receives public dollars, Shining Rock Classical Academy must follow the state’s public records and open meetings laws.
But on July 3, 2015, Shining Rock’s board held a closed session meeting to discuss property acquisition. Upon returning to open session, an affirmative vote authorized then-board chair Tara Keilberg, who is now the school’s business manager, to purchase real estate on behalf of the school.
Problem is, the school refused to disclose the location of the property to the public, which according to Mike Tadych, a media law expert and attorney for the N.C. Press Association at the time, is a violation of state open meetings laws.
Keilberg protested, opining that disclosure could induce another buyer to come along and purchase the property out from under SRCA.
However, a long list of experienced local government officials — used to operating under the very same laws Shining Rock is subject to — decried the move.
“You have to identify what you are voting on, period,” said then-Chairman of the Haywood Board of County Commissioners Mark Swanger, a former FBI agent who worked on cases of public corruption. Swanger is also a former chairman of the Haywood County School Board.
Chip Killian, Haywood County’s’ attorney for more than 40 years, concurred with Swanger in that same July 29, 2015, SMN story.
“If I was their lawyer I would tell them they should reveal the name of the owners and property that they were making an offer to buy,” Killian said. “I don’t know that [Keilberg’s protestation] gives them the right to conceal the property they are proposing to buy.”
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Public Law and Government Professor Frayda Bluestein said at the time that it certainly doesn’t, citing the 2002 case of Boney Publishers v. Burlington City Council which in part found that “if requested, the board must disclose the property’s current owner, the location of the property, and the use to which the board intends to put on the property before they meet in closed session.”
On multiple occasions the school has also failed to provide the required 48-hour notice to media outlets of special called meetings when those media outlets have requested to be notified.
On Oct. 18 of this year, Shining Rock’s School Director Ben Butler submitted without comment to the Shining Rock board his resignation, with a proposed termination date at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Shining Rock’s board unanimously accepted Butler’s resignation at a hastily arranged special called meeting set for 6 p.m. on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 22.
Notices for the meeting were, as in 2015, sent to the media less than 48 hours prior to the start of the meeting – in this case, at 8:38 p.m. on the evening of Friday, Oct. 20.
“I apologize for being a little late,” Eason said in the notice.
At that Oct. 22 meeting, Shining Rock’s board also approved a contract with Leaders Building Leaders that had been prepared almost a month prior and dated Sept. 29.
That contract was for “organizational support.” The firm, founded by a man Eason’s Oct. 23 statement called “a longtime partner and advisor” to Shining Rock, Dr. Tom Miller, to “act as an Executive Director to the Shining Rock Board” and to “Facilitate the school’s search for its next leader” at a cost of $6,750 per month.
“We help charter schools solve problems,” reads the home page of Raleigh-based Leaders Building Leaders, a consultancy that seeks to “teach school leaders and boards to identify the cause of problems and execute a sustainable solution for lasting success.”
The Sept. 29 proposal also states that the contract would be modified “once the new HOS [head of school] is in place,” indicating that Butler’s departure was far from unexpected.
The hiring process appears to be proceeding on schedule according to Eason’s Oct. 23 statement. On Jan. 5, she told SMN that in the aftermath of the Jan. 3 meet-and-greet, “Governance will now take the votes and feedback from teachers, parents, and students, as well as review the project they were assigned to narrow down the candidates that will be interviewed by the full board at the January meeting.”
Shining Rock’s next regular board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 17. As of press time it was unclear whether or not a special called meeting set for 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 10 — again, improperly noticed less than 48 hours prior to the start of the meeting — was related to the search for Butler’s replacement; the only item on the agenda is a closed session pursuant to N.C. General Statute 143-318.11(a)(6), which relates to personnel.
SMN News Editor Jessi Stone contributed to this report.